RIVERVIEW — Blasted by critics and wading in debt, the Regent's board is eager to make this point clear: It's losing money.
The board says negative numbers back up the Riverview events center's claim that it can't afford to quickly return $35,000 demanded by Hillsborough County commissioners.
"It's going to be touch and go," said David Lemar Jr., the Regent's board chairman.
Financial statements obtained this week by the Tampa Bay Times show that the Regent spent more than it made in 2011, its first year of operation.
Opened in January 2011, the center netted about $195,000 in rental fees. But it spent about $207,000 on operating expenses, according to an independent audit by Hamilton and Phillips, a Brandon accounting firm.
The small operating deficit grew with an additional $46,000 used for professional fees — mostly, Lemar said, legal and accounting services to curb controversy about mismanagement and misspending.
There was $41,000 in the bank, he said, because the board hasn't repaid all of the money requested back from its landlord, Hillsborough Community College. The Regent's board is reimbursing HCC $116,000 over 10 years.
Nonprofit groups aren't required to commission independent audits. But the Regent has long faced criticism over its misuse of some of the nearly $7 million it received in public money.
Experts say an operational loss isn't unusual for an opening year. But audits are just a snapshot.
"They're not forecasts," said Maureen Butler, assistant professor of accounting at the University of Tampa. "It could be completely different next year."
In 2011, the Regent reported holding 113 events, 49 of which received discounted rates. This year, the center has booked 170 events, including 100 with discounted rates.
HCC spokeswoman Ashley Carl said the Regent is "doing a better job" this year by improving its reach in the community.
Lemar did not make more up-to-date figures available.
During a heated June meeting, county commissioners called for documents showing the Regent's current financial situation.
The county says $35,000 of its $2.5 million contribution was misspent, and the Regent's board proposed a repayment plan of $400 monthly for seven years.
Commissioners scathingly rejected the offer. Commissioner Victor Crist was particularly adamant about holding the center accountable for its spending of taxpayer money.
Told of the Regent's audit Tuesday, Crist dismissed the 2011 deficit and wanted to see this year's budget and business plan.
"Until they lay their books on the table, we don't know what is real or what is fiction," he said, adding, "We should be looking at the future and their capabilities of repaying the debt."
The Regent's board plans to discuss repayment this week. County commissioners will discuss the matter on Aug. 2.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.